Let’s take a little break from castles and talk about food. Generally speaking, Lithuanian fare can be divided into the following food groups:
- Beet root
- Dumplings (meat, fruit, mushroom, or cheese filled)
- Crepes with cottage cheese, mushroom, or chicken filling
Take any combination of the above ingredients, boil them, fry them, bake them, sautée them or immerse them in a broth, garnish them with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, dill, fried onions and sour cream, and you have yourself a Lithuanian meal.
Give a Lithuanian a potato, and he will turn it into a square meal faster than you can say, “Nešiok sveikas kol pamesi.” Potatoes are a huge staple of the Lithuanian diet and therefore ubiquitous in our cooking. Pancakes, dumplings, casseroles, sausages – you name it, we can make it out of a potato.
One thing Lithuanians love to do is stuff things with meat filling. I have already introduced you to kold?nai – dumplings that are usually filled with either meat or mushrooms and often served with fried onions, bacon and sour cream – but it’s also important to mention kibinai, the larger, baked cousins of kold?nai, which were introduced to us by the Karaim warriors of Crimea who settled in Lithuania during the 1300s to serve as the security detail for Grand Duke Vytautas. We ate meat and mushroom-filled kibinai in the town of Trakai (more on that in another post) and they were delicious.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Lithuania’s national food “cepelinai” in the meat-stuffed food category. Cepelinai (literally, “zeppelins”) are gigantic potato dumplings with meat filling, served with sautéed onions, bacon bits, and sour cream. In my family we call them “gut bombs,” and if you follow this link, you’ll see why.
Lithuanians have a fondness for cold soups, but the favorite of these by far is cold beet soup (“šaltibarš?iai) made with buttermilk, grated beetroot, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, and served with – you got it – fried potatoes. I make this soup at home often in the summertime, but it was really fun to be able to order it in each and every restaurant we visited in Lithuania, like it’s a normal thing.
Now let’s talk about pigs. Lithuanians love a fried pork chop just as much as the next guy, and we also have a soft spot for kebobs (another gift from the East). But what really gets our blood flowing is seeing how many different parts of the pork are edible and in what strangely satisfying ways they can be prepared.
To wit, pork bits encased in cold gelatin (“šaltiena” or “košeliena”), served with horseradish, vinegar dill dressing, and potatoes:
You could also throw some diced carrots into this, as my grandmother used to, and make it a square meal. It tastes a lot like what you would expect pork bits encased in salted gelatin to taste like, but some people really love it. My grandmother used to prepare a sanitized version of this with chicken, but I think you’re really supposed to make it with pork and leave some gristle in for good measure.
Next up, pig ears:
Can’t say that I loved these. They were . . . kind of crunchy.
We ate a lot of skilandis, which is a sausage made of garlic flavored minced meat and bacon, using pig’s stomach as casement. In the photo below, the skilandis is on the bottom and the item above it is chicken gizzards.
Apparently, chicken gizzards are a popular snack in Lithuania, and they are often eaten while drinking beer. Like bar peanuts, but chewy.
For the most part while in Lithuania, we stuck to restaurants that served traditional Lithuanian fare (and to my aunt’s excellent home cooking.) But Lithuania has come a long, long way since Soviet times and, especially in big cities like Vilnius, you can eat everything from sushi to pizza. One night we went to a trendy little restaurant, Lauro Lapas, where I had Baltic cod with local chanterelles, fennel, and sweet potato. The service there was great and the food was delicious.
In closing, I must mention fried garlic bread sticks. Made from dark rye bread, rubbed with copious amounts of garlic, and deep fried, they, like gizzards, are traditional bar fare. I don’t have a good photo of pure, unbasterdized garlic breadsticks, but here is a plate of cheese covered ones we had at a Vilnius microbrewery one night:
One thing I noticed about eating out in Lithuania was how fresh and full of flavor everything was, even the salads we ordered in chain restaurants. All the vegetables were locally grown and the meat locally raised, and you could most definitely tell the difference.Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)